Monday, January 11, 2010

2009's Interesting Moments, the Good and the Bad.

When Jay Leno heard scalpers were getting $800 for tickets to a free concert he planned in Detroit to cheer up unemployed auto workers, he said, “You’re out of your mind to pay $800 to see me. I wouldn’t pay—my mother wouldn’t pay—$800 to see me.” Leno’s mother confirmed that she wouldn’t pay more than $6.75 in green stamps.

January proved to be the worst month for car sales since 1981, with the combined market share of the Big Three sagging to 42.6 percent, the lowest in the history of the U.S. auto industry. Drain-circling GM lost $2.8 million per hour during the first 90 days of the year and spiraled into bankruptcy, as did Chrysler. The children and unborn grandchildren of today’s taxpayers handed out $104 billion in bailout funds. GM got more than $30 billion and soon came back for seconds, while Chrysler took $15.5 billion, a dowry it used to get hitched to Fiat. Suppliers took federal money. Captive lenders such as GMAC got bailouts. People trading in Cadillac Cateras were handed government cash. Even micromakes Tesla and Fisker chiseled about a half-billion each from Uncle Sam, though Fisker doesn’t yet make a car. Suffering car magazines got a pat on the back and blah, blah.

Since 2000, import automakers such as Toyota have taken more than 5 million sales annually from domestic brands. Consequently, the Japanese press has, like a disappointed parent, been tut-tutting over the situation faced by Detroit’s beleaguered executives. “If [U.S. automakers] used the Japanese-style business practice of cutting costs with a unified labor and management,” opined the Japanese business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbum, “the situation wouldn’t have deteriorated to this extent.” Well, obviously.

President Barack Obama told a crowd in Washington that “just last week, Car and Driver named me Auto Executive of the Year, something I’m very proud of.” Not so fast... On April 1, Car and Driver said you prohibited GM and Chrysler from running in NASCAR, which was, a lie. But Car and Driver's Auto Executive of the Year is Katsuaki Watanabe, who is vice chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation.

The $2.9 billion Car Allowance Rebate Program, better known as “Cash for Clunkers,” purged 690,114 vehicles from American highways in August to wild whoops from Congress. The Ford Explorer was one of the most popular trade-ins—63,163 were dumped for the $4500 rebate on a new car. Taxpayers bought 13 Porsches, six Maseratis, 19 postal vehicles taxpayers had already purchased once before, and an ultrarare 1987 Buick GNX that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly kept for herself. Thirty-seven model-year 2008 vehicles were traded for $4500 rebates on model-year 2009 vehicles. The engine-shredding slurry of sodium silicate was, per program rules, injected into the crankcases of a 1997 Bentley Continental R and an Aston Martin DB7 Volante. Toyota was the biggest sales winner, grabbing 19.4 percent of the rebate purchases. Junkyards also made out, reselling the leftover parts to help keep America’s other 250-million-plus vehicles roadworthy for years to come.

Rick Wagoner, the former GM chairman ejected during the company’s government-run “reinvention,” will receive an $8.2 million payout over five years, plus $74,030 annually until the sad day that we lay him to rest in the obituary section that follows.

Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, which controls the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League, was fired by his own mother—his own mother!—ISC chairman Mari Hulman George, apparently for spending too much money upgrading the track.

We normally reserve this space for a list of the models killed over the past year. However, this year it’s easier just to list the companies that were killed.
Pontiac is dead. Saturn is dead. Hummer was sold to China’s Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company, a fate possibly worse than death. After 87 years in business, Checker Motors went into bankruptcy. (The company stopped building cars in 1982 but continued on as a stamping and welded-subassembly supplier.) And Wilhelm Karmann GmbH, best known for the scrappy 1955–1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and more lately for assembling high-end convertibles for German brands, also went bankrupt and shut down its carmaking operation.
Finally, let’s extend a moment of silence for the Chrysler owner’s manual. To save a little filthy lucre (and 930 tons of paper), Chrysler says it will stop stuffing glove boxes with complete, 200-page owner’s manuals. Instead, it is replacing them with a DVD and a briefer, 60-to-80-page handbook, which owners can continue to not read.

Larry Miller, 64, founder of a $2.5 billion, 39-dealership retailing empire that spans six states, creator of Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City, and owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team, of complications from diabetes, on February 20.

Colorado’s Department of Revenue rejected resident Kelly Coffman-Lee’s vanity-license-plate application, which was ILVTOFU. Said an obviously filthy-minded spokesman, “It could be misinterpreted in a way that suggests that she likes something other than tofu.” We don’t see it.

Drivers caught thump-a-dumping their tunes too loudly in Fort Lupton, Colorado, are sentenced by Judge Paul Sacco to a Friday-night “music immersion” at the courthouse. For one hour, offenders must listen to Barry Manilow, the “Barney” theme, Bing Crosby, and other music guaranteed to torment teenagers, the primary audience. Fort Lupton has reported a 64-percent drop in noise offenses.

Interesting & Stupid:
Michael Bryant, former Liberal Party attorney general for the Canadian province of Ontario, probably knew that he was breaking the law when he bumped a bicyclist with his vehicle in Toronto and then tore off at high speed—with the rider still clinging to the door. Bryant, who as attorney general championed draconian laws to stop street racing, including the seizing and crushing of the cars of offenders, tried to scrape off the rider by driving his Saab up on sidewalks and near lampposts while screaming obscenities. Eventually, the bicyclist was removed by a mailbox and later died of his injuries. Bryant was charged with criminal negligence and may soon be unable to pay any amount to see Jay Leno.

A six-year-old boy in Wicomico Church, Virginia, missed his school bus and decided to take his mother’s Ford Taurus instead. The boy—did we say he was six?—drove for 10 miles, weaving in and out of traffic at speeds sometimes exceeding 60 mph, before striking one of the few poles in Virginia that doesn’t already have a Taurus wrapped around it. Somehow, nobody was hurt. The kid said he learned to drive from the video game Grand Theft Auto. No kidding.

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